It’s been almost a month since I arrived in Erice for Bread Loaf in Sicily.
I wish my pictures could somehow encapsulate the magic that was our conference and this special place.
I wasn’t terribly excited about this place before I left; the photos on the Bread Loaf site all looked very, well, brown. I love the rest of Italy, with its lush, verdant landscapes, and this seemed so unattractive. I’m glad I allowed myself to trust the Bread Loaf name; it did not disappoint.
Erice is a small, medieval town almost 2500 feet above sea level. Each morning, I woke up to the stunning view above, and I felt myself unwind and go still inside every time I took in that view. It was a balm for my soul.
The town is very quiet. There’s little traffic, and only the soft sound of the wind accompanied me on my walks. We were in the clouds every day–they floated past my head, and once I had the delightful experience of getting caught in the rain while in the clouds. It was completely different from any rain I’ve ever felt!
The conference itself was intense and wonderful and enlightening. I felt energized to be among this group of dedicated writers, each of whom, I soon learned, had their own complicated stories. Each day started with breakfast followed by a morning craft lecture by one of the instructors, and then we workshopped in our individual groups for two hours (I chose the non-fiction workshop). Each workshop was small–six attendees–and my workshop leader, John Elder, was kind, generous, funny and insightful. In only a short time, I grew to know and love my workshop-mates. We had a great time together, learning and talking and debating. More than one person from other workshops told me they were jealous of our group, because we always seemed to be laughing together!
After workshops each day, we all dined together in a huge, noisy group in the hotel lobby. I met people from all over the country and especially enjoyed talking with many of the poets (I love the way they think, the way they dismantle and reform language). I chatted with Helen Schulman, novelist and one of the fiction workshop leaders, on several occasions; she shared insight about motherhood and marriage that helped validate where I am with my own work in my life (one epiphany I had after talking to several mother-writers: none of us has it easy. And we’re all writing anyway, making time in our insanely-busy lives to do this important and necessary work). Schulman’s craft talk was my favorite of the week (a lecture on close reading, dissecting short stories sentence by sentence, word by word).
The conference scheduled an activity each afternoon–a walking tour of Erice, a church tour, and a full-day trip to the nearby Greek temple ruins of Segesta on Wednesday–but I skipped all of these. I needed quiet space and time alone, to think, to rest my mind, to write, to draw and paint. I loved my afternoons alone, wandering around the mountaintop.
Each evening from 5:00-6:00, we had a wine reception in the church garden overlooking the valley. I generally skipped most of these too, until the very end, right before the night’s readings began at 6:00 (we were given wine at lunch each day, then we had a wine reception each evening, both free. I didn’t drink at lunch and only had half a glass at the wine reception each night…and then many people purchased wine at dinner. One person asked me, “Amy, don’t you drink?” when he noticed I wasn’t drinking wine at dinner each night. I was like, well sure I drink, just not three times a day.)
After our wine reception, two instructors read from their own work each evening from 6:00-7:00 in the church garden. I loved these readings. John Elder played his pennywhistle during his reading (I wanted to upload the video but can’t seem to get it to work, so I’ve put a picture below). I also loved Elizabeth Spires’ reading of her poem “The Snail.” Michael Collier, the Bread Loaf conference director, closed the week with a reading of his prose poem and it just blew everyone away…it was a powerful piece of writing about being sexually abused by a priest when he was an altar boy.
And then, each night after readings, we went to dinner in small groups. We dined in area restaurants, each of us assigned to a rotating group and a different restaurant every night. I LOVED how the conference organized this. We always had a few of our own workshop people with us, but we were also grouped with people and instructors from other workshops. I’ve been to other conferences where there are neat little lines drawn between the authors/instructors and the attendees, and those lines do not get crossed. At Bread Loaf in Sicily, we were one big group. It felt inclusive and invigorating and fun. I got to know other Loafers at dinner that I wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to, because due to our different workshops, our paths wouldn’t cross.
On Friday night, our last, we walked down the mountain to the Belvedere, a big restaurant overlooking the mountainside and the sea, and we dined together as a group one last time. I was ready to go meet my family (my husband and sons had stayed up in northern Italy near Cesena, with his family) and I missed my children very much…but I was also feeling wistful and sad that this special week was drawing to a close. I felt as if I had used every drop of it up; I was leaving with no regrets. I got great feedback in my workshop, I produced new material, I refilled the well that had run dry from years of mothering without a break. I breathed deeply on that last night, wanting to remember the smell of the mountain air, wanting to stand still in the quietness of that little town just a little longer.
I chose to be brave at this conference. I did things that scared me or made me uncomfortable. I practiced a little Italian here and there. I drew in public, even as people looked at my sketchbook. I participated in the big conference attendee reading for workshoppers on Thursday night. I cried when I read my essay out loud in front of all those people. When my new friend TriLeigh asked to look at my sketchbook, I let her, choosing to ignore that uncomfortable little tug of embarrassment and instead just enjoy sharing something I love. I talked to people everywhere I went (I am, by nature, shy). When we did writing prompts in our workshops, I read my writing aloud. It felt good to challenge my stale ideas of myself and try something new and brave every single day. I chose to skip anything I didn’t want to go to and to put myself first the entire week.
It felt good to be Amy instead of only being a mother. It felt good to let go of my fear of looking stupid or inadequate. Fear is exhausting. It’s limiting. It makes my world way too small.
I flew out of Palermo the next morning and went on to Rome, where (thanks to the help of the lovely Hope Maxwell Snyder) I decided to skip my connecting flight to Bologna and its ridiculous six-hour layover and take the train up north instead. Hope’s exquisite Italian helped me navigate the train ticketing and I rode up north, where my husband’s cousin and her boyfriend picked me up in her adorable little black Italian car.
And on our last day in Cesena, we spent the day celebrating my boys’ cousin Amelia’s second birthday. There was nothing cuter or more heartwarming than watching them play at my husband’s aunt’s farm and listening to little Amelia chatter away in Italian.
On our final day in Rimini, where we had rented an apartment, we chose to spend the afternoon at the beach. The water was shockingly clear, and because it was September the beach was mostly empty even though it was quite warm (upper seventies by mid-day).
It was the perfect way to spend our last day in Italy.
The trip home was hellacious and the children were beyond depleted when we finally fell into bed 22 hours after we started our journey. I had been nervous about how we would all be able to handle so much travel and the time changes–how I would be able to handle them, now that I’m six years older than the last time I went to Italy and a mother to two small children. But we all did so well, and I learned a lot about myself, not the least of which is that I need breaks like this more often. Maybe not an entire week overseas every year, but there’s no reason I can’t go away for a few restorative weekends every year. And there’s no reason we can’t tackle bigger trips together as a family now, now that our boys are just old enough to make it possible.
I came home knowing these things:
I will keep writing. This was not a surprise, only a reinforcement of what I’ve always known.
I need more quiet space in my life and I can get that quiet space every day if I look for it.
I can travel more, both with my family and without.
I can’t wait to resume my German again (I met so many people who study second and even third languages just for fun!).
I am a mother, but I am also someone other than a mother. I can love my children and love being their mother and also be loyal to the person that is me.
I can’t wait to do all of this again.